OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Five

We All Make Choices

—OldEarth—

Sienna watched Kelesta out of the corner of her eye as she stood at the control dashboard and tapped the directional sequence for planet Helm. “Would you stop pacing? I’m getting dizzy.”

Kelesta swung around, crossing her arms over her chest. “You don’t have to watch me like a hawk.”

“Not a hawk…more like an interested bystander.”

Clomping forward in oversized sandals, Kelesta shook her head. “Bystander? I hardly think that’s a fit description. Not after you zapped Teal and practically stole a place in the inner ring.”

With a shrug, Sienna stepped to the holograph pad and tapped in new coordinates. A swirling universe appeared before her eyes. She grinned. “I did get a nice view.” She peered aside. “I must say, Ishtar’s daring rivals Teal’s.”

“Teal would probably like to see you evaporate.”

“You mean disintegrate?” Sienna laughed. “He’s angry, but he’ll get over it, and Sterling was seriously impressed. I’ll have no problem getting sixth-year status now.”

“And I thought I was ambitious!” Kelesta stomped to the door. “At least when I use someone, I still care about them. I don’t knock them unconscious to get what I want.”

“Like you used Zuri?” Sienna licked her lips. “He told me all about your interest in his previous relationships and how you feigned personal interest, so he’d take you to observe Chai.”

“It wasn’t feigned! I actually like Zuri.”

“But you like Chai better.”

Narrowing her eyes, Kelesta marched to Sienna, flung her hands on her hips, and stared her in the eyes. “Chai wasn’t really Chai. He allowed himself to become used by a force he couldn’t control. We never actually encountered Chai…we only perceived a man wearing his skin.”

Sienna nodded. “I agree. Though he was a free man when he let it take him.” She swished the hologram around and pointed to a dark sector. “Not to change the subject, but our mysterious friends—the ones who nearly decimated Crestar—have been adding to their black hole.”

Kelesta frowned. “I’m not sure I’m done arguing with you about Zuri and Teal.”

The door swished open, and Sterling swept onto the bridge. “Ah, I thought I’d find you two here. Playing nice, I hope.”

Kelesta met Sienna’s gaze. She whispered under her breath. “I’m not done—”

Sienna waved the comment away and strode around the hologram. She beckoned Sterling forward. “I found something I believe you’ll find interesting, Judge Sterling.”

“Using formal titles, are we? Impressive.” He grinned. “Though I always find you impressive.”

“Except when you’re trying to kill her.”

Sterling flicked a glance at Kelesta. “Especially then.” He focused his attention on Sienna. “What are you so eager to show me?” He stepped closer but kept one hand raised in a defensive posture.

Startled but unwilling to lapse into rude curiosity, Sienna focused on the elongated black hole. “It’s growing. Getting longer.” She bit her lip. “If it keeps going at this rate, it’ll” —she tapped the console and the holographic image reshaped. Now the black hole appeared as a thick black line in space— “divide us from a large portion of the universe.”

“They must be on the other side.” Kelesta glanced at Sterling.

Sterling tilted his head. “Perceptive, my Bhuaci friend.” He glanced from one woman to the other. “I’ll call you Impressive and you Perceptive from now on, so I don’t get mixed up.” He peered at Sienna. “Promise not to stun me, so I can put my hand down?”

Sienna rolled her eyes.

Swinging his arm, Sterling gestured to the door. “Where’s Teal?”

“He’s avoiding me.”

“Wise man.”

“He’s a fool. I would’ve missed seeing the greatest exchange of wills since Arkolopus and Hugunt battled for supremacy on Ingilium.”

“A mere folk tale, nothing more.” Sterling frowned. “As a sixth-year, you should know better.” He strode around the hologram. “Besides, Teal was my choice for guardian on Earth.” He tapped the black hole, and his finger went right through it. “You overstepped the line, and I’m afraid there will have to be consequences.”

A hot flush burned Sienna’s face. “I did what I thought was best for all concerned!” She chortled in his face. “You know what Ungle would’ve done!”

Kelesta shook her head and stepped away. “Ungle was there. Well—as good as.” She tapped the console, and the universe vanished. In its place, the scene between Ishtar and Chai replayed in all its fire-lit glory.

“Zuri informed Ungle when we arrived on the scene, and the wise Cresta insisted on a direct feed.” A grin brightened Kelesta’s eyes. “Zuri’s good about that kind of thing—set it up so no one was the wiser. They thought we were prisoners along with all the rest.”

Sterling snorted. “No one followed directions. You were supposed to watch Amin.”

The door swished open, and Zuri stepped in. He peered from Sienna to Sterling, and then his gaze wandered to Kelesta. With a smile, his attention flickered to the holographic image. “Like it?” He strode forward and waved a hand. “Saved for further study. Ungle’s idea—”

A ka-boom blasted eardrums and fragments of the door exploded through the air. Zuri dropped to the ground, pulling Kelesta with him. Sterling toppled over. Sienna crouched under the main console.

Ark stood in the broken doorway with a Dustbuster held limply in one tentacle, his bulbous eyes huge and frightened.

A gray cloud of dust and tiny debris floated through the air, and a sharp stench curled up Sienna’s nose. Swallowing her disgust, she crawled to Sterling who lay face down on the floor and placed her hand on his back. “Are you—?”

Sterling lifted his head. “Alive…for the moment.” He peered back, and Sienna followed his gaze.

Zuri had thrown himself over Kelesta, protecting her. They both stirred.

Sienna snorted, rose, and wiped her hands on her long dress. “So he does care.”

Sterling stomped toward Ark and snatched the Dustbuster from his tentacle. “What are you doing?”

Ark shuffled forward, his head hanging low. “Ungle ordered me to. He wants you all dead before the sun sets.”

Choking, Sienna yanked the Dustbuster from Sterling’s grip and pointed it at Ark. “Why?”

Ark lifted his tentacles helplessly. “I wasn’t aiming to kill. I shot high so as to make it look good. Though, I’m sure Ungle is monitoring us…” His gaze swiveled around the deck.

Zuri scrambled to the main console, and his fingers flew over the board. He glanced up. “Not anymore!” Crossing his arms, he glared at Ark. “You mind telling us why Ungle wants to kill us…especially after we fulfilled his every request?”

Sterling glanced at Zuri. “I suspect that’s exactly why.” He returned his attention to Ark. “He got what he wanted, and now he’d like to clear the planet of unnecessary elements—perhaps?”

Shuffling to a wide chair, Ark plopped down and dropped his tentacles in his lap. “Truth is, we’re at war.”

His eyes widening, Zuri stepped forward and leaned in toward Ark. “Crestar is at war with—?”

“Ingilium and Lux.” He glanced at Kelesta. “Sorry, the Cresta Ingal do not consider the Bhuaci a sufficient threat to declare war on them. Though if you interfere…they may change their minds.”

Sienna gripped the railing that led to the upper deck. “If we’re at war…then you’re” —she clenched her jaw— “the enemy.”

Sterling stepped between Sienna and Ark. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish Teal were here.”

“I am.” Taking each step slowly and deliberately, Teal descended to the central floor. “I’ve seen everything.”

Heat worked over Sienna’s body, and she glowed at the edges. “I wondered where you’d got to.”

Sterling cleared his throat as he glanced from her to Teal. “You could’ve warned us about Ark and his dramatic entrance.” He turned and peered at Ark. “I read Ungle’s transmission. You’re a master liar.”

Ark bowed as if accepting a compliment.

Zuri tapped his fingers together nervously. “So are we really at war with Crestar?”

Sterling nodded. “Crestar has sent out a formal declaration that all foreign elements are to leave Earth immediately or be eliminated.”

Sienna flashed a frown at Ark. “Crestonians are as foreign as the rest of us.”

Sterling waved his hands. “That’s beside the point. What Ungle hopes to achieve is more to our interest.”

Ark sighed. “He was severely disappointed with Ishtar— and Chai for that matter. He was hoping that Ishtar would destroy the thing that controlled Chai. But Ishtar not only ignored it, he appeared to grieve the loss of a thoroughly despicable man.”

Zuri wrapped an arm around Kelesta and leaned on the wall, pulling her close. “What did he think Ishtar would do? He doesn’t have a Dustbuster or advanced weapons. Obviously, a force that strong couldn’t be destroyed through primitive means.”

As Kelesta nestled comfortably in Zuri’s embrace, she frowned at Ark. “Bhuaci may not be a match for Crestonians, but we’ll see the annexation of this planet as an act of aggression and fight to maintain our interest here.”

Ark pointed to the hologram. “If you’d be so kind, refigure that thing to focus on the growing Divide between us and our mystery friends.”

Sienna tapped the console and brought up the same image she had used earlier. “It’s still growing.”

“That’s what frightened Ungle and our entire planet into a panic.” Ark rose with a groan. “I don’t agree that abandoning Earth will save us from the evil that beset Chai and almost destroyed Ishtar. That same force can bedevil the heart of every being this side of the Divide…and perhaps the other side as well.”

Sienna shook her head. “So what are we going to do?”

Sterling stepped to the blasted door—nothing more than a ragged frame. “I need to discuss the matter with the Supreme Judges.” He peered from Sienna to Teal. “Make ready to leave as soon as possible.”

Zuri glanced from Sterling to Ark. “You aren’t going to take your enemy as a hostage?”

Sterling grinned. “I don’t see an enemy, do you?” He started to step through the door and shook his head. “By every star in Heaven, I almost forgot…never mind.” With a flick of his hand, he flashed out of sight.

Kelesta peered up at Zuri. “What are you going to do?”

Zuri caressed her cheek and peered into her eyes. “I’m going to do my duty and report home.” His thumb ran under her chin. “Just like you’re going to do when you return to Helm.”

Kelesta’s voice rose in panic. “You’re going to leave me?”

Teal cleared his throat. “Could you two have that discussion somewhere else?”

Sienna glanced at Teal. “We could be having the same discussion.”

Teal shook his head. “No. We couldn’t.” He nudged Ark. “You’ll have to return to Lux with me. I hardly think your misfire today will go unnoticed.”

Zuri glanced over. “We’ll bring Kelesta to Helm first and then swing by Lux and drop you two off before I head home.”

Like a body blow, Sienna suddenly understood what the term heartbreak meant. Her mouth dropped open. “You mean you’re not going to forgive and forget? Like Ishtar? Like Aram and all your wonderful human heroes?”

Teal frowned. “Forgiving doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to reality. I hold no animosity toward you. I just can’t trust you.” He turned away and nodded to Zuri. “I’ll study the Divide phenomena on the upper deck. Call me if you need anything.” He turned and ascended the steps.

Zuri took Kelesta’s hand and led her through the blasted doorway. “We’re going to be—”

Ark waved them on. “I don’t need the details.”

Sienna watched Teal’s booted feet disappear on the upper landing. She plunked down on a chair before the main console.

Ark reached out and wrapped a tentacle around her shoulder. “We all make choices.”

Sienna blinked, her heart falling to the ground. “Apparently, I’ve made mine.

”“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” ~William Shakespeare

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Three

—OldEarth—

Intercept Course

Teal leapt over a boulder, scrambled up a rocky incline, and frowned at a loud gasp behind him. He peered over his shoulder.

Sterling lay sprawled on the ground like a broken toy.

Turning on his heel, Teal doubled backed, lifted Sterling by the arms, and dragged him to the shelter of an overhanging cliff. He dropped the ragged figure in the shade without ceremony and fell on his knees, heaving gasps of air.

Sterling sat up and rocked back and forth like a frightened child. “I can’t do this anymore. I really will disintegrate.”

Falling back on his haunches, Teal leaned on the shaded rock face, his heart pounding, his mind frozen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Never.”

Sterling lay spread-eagle and sucked in deep draughts of air. “For once…I can write an interesting report…and I won’t…have to embellish…a bit of it.” He shook his head. His white hair splayed in the dust. “Too bad…it’ll be my last.”

Disgusted, Teal spared him a glance.

Rising with a groan, Sterling sat up, heaved a deep cleansing breath, and clapped his hands free of dirt and pebbles. “We’re not going any further with this study.” He shook his finger at the stone city in the distance. “You saw its power. Bothmal! It could’ve eaten us!”

Clasping his hands steeple-style before his face, Teal stared into the distance. “I don’t think it could sense us as clearly as we could sense it. Certainly, the guards only saw us as men…not Luxonians. I doubt it could know—”

“By all that is good and holy, I’m not about to find out what it knows.” Climbing to his feet, Sterling ran his hand over his hair and smoothed down his rumbled rags. “You saw them…once they lost the chance to toss Obed into that pit, their eyes fixed right on yours truly.” He tapped his chest. “I would’ve become nothing more than an evening snack for that beast.”

Teal rose with a grunt. “Surely, it would’ve spit you out.”

Glaring, Sterling huffed and squared his shoulders. He shimmered and reappeared in his immaculate white tunic and leggings.

Leaning forward, Teal surveyed their desert surroundings. “No one followed. All’s clear.” He glanced back. “We can leave and meet up with the others— Luxonian-style of course.”

Sterling’s eyes drooped to half-mast. “I wasn’t about to tip-toe over that blasted desert.” He shook himself. “I still can’t believe I saw an honest-to-goodness demon.”

A flush worked over Teal’s face. “Honest-to-goodness? You’re delirious. Besides, we don’t even understand what humans mean by a demon. It’s a catch-all term to explain any terrify—”

“Annihilate! Do you deny that fiend was anything but what humans refer to as a demon?”

Startled, Teal drew back. He ran his fingers through his ruffled hair. “I’ll never understand you—sir.” He met Sterling’s gaze. “I thought you considered humans little more than barbarians.”

“Even barbarians can be right sometimes. They happen to be right about demons.”

Rubbing his chin, Teal considered the rock ceiling.

“How would you define it? Spirit energy? Light force? Dark matter? An unreported—?”

“Oh, it’s been reported—by almost every race in the universe. Demons may have different names and come in various forms, but they all inflict the same horror and spread the same destruction.” He shuddered. “You and I wouldn’t have disintegrated exactly—we would’ve become subservient to it. Slaves. Dead to ourselves and all free people.”

Teal closed his eyes. “I’m glad Obed escaped.”

Sterling bobbed his head up and down. “I’m glad we escaped!” He stepped forward. “I’m going to recommend that a quarantine be placed around this planet as soon as possible.”

Teal gripped Sterling’s arm. “But humanity isn’t demonic!”

“You saw those men. They are serving it innocent victims every pitiless day.”

Pounding into the light, Teal faced the sun. “But not all humanity does so. Some people resist evil.” He glared at Sterling. “You said it yourself, Obed escaped. And Ishtar escaped.” He exhaled and folded his arms. “Ungle has a point. We have to find Ishtar and watch what happens when he meets Chai.”

Sterling snorted. “So we can see him get devoured?” He curled his lips in obvious distaste. “I thought blood-sports disgusted you.”

Teal stepped up the rocky incline and pointed west. “As much as any decent being. We can’t defeat evil, but at least we can learn from those who resist it.”

~~~

Ark stood at the ship’s helm and hid a spreading grin behind a well-placed tentacle. A bubble of enjoyment tickled his insides as he watched the drama unfold before his eyes.

Zuri swaggered on deck, explaining with chest-thumping pride each and every instrument panel.

Kelesta practically purred, her eyes glued to Zuri’s every move.

Sienna stood near the open bay door, frowning. “Sterling and Teal should return any moment.” She glanced at Ark. “Are you quite done?”

Ark cleared his throat, sending bubbles to the surface of his breathing helm. “Oh, yes!” He turned and offered a generous smile. “Young love—I could watch all day and never get bored.”

Sienna’s gaze shifted to Zuri, roving from his spiked blond hair to his sandaled four-toed feet. “He almost appears human now.”

Ark snorted. “That’s the idea…or rather to look more Old-World Ingoti.”

Sienna crossed her arms and glared at Ark. “So are you going to tell me—or do I have to guess?”

“Zuri’s lady friend likes her mates au-naturale.”

“Zuri has a mate?” Sienna’s gaze darted to Kelesta.

Unconcerned, Ark waved a tentacle. “I don’t suppose it’s terribly serious, considering how much time he spends away.”

Pursing her lips, Sienna frowned. “Some people are faithful no matter the distance.”

A bright light blinked, and Sterling appeared in the middle of the deck with Teal standing behind him.

Zuri turned sharply, and Kelesta tripped, gripping his arm for support.

Without ceremony, Teal glanced around. His eyes stopped on Zuri, and he stepped forward. “Where’s Ishtar?”

With a by-your-leave grin, Zuri slipped from Kelesta’s grasp and met Teal in the middle of the deck. “He saw the ravages of Chai’s conquests and is hurrying home. Why? What’s happened?”

Sterling sauntered closer and shrugged. “We met a demon from hell.”

Everyone froze.

Ark giggled and flipped a tentacle over his breathing helm, a flush working up his face. “Sorry. Such a blatantly vivid image—”

Teal stomped to an instrument panel and scanned the surface. “Hardly a laughing matter.” He glanced at Zuri.

Zuri padded to the central computer and tapped the surface. A holographic image appeared in the middle of the room.

In colorful detail, Ishtar appeared to be working his way around the coast of a large lake.

Zuri peered up. “He’s near home. The women have hidden in caves. He might run into them or someone from his clan soon.”

Ark shuffled closer, rubbing two tentacles together. “Bet that’ll be fun.”

Teal swallowed. “Where’s Chai?”

Zuri tapped the console again, his slender fingers flying over the flat surface.

A holographic image showed Chai leading a large band of warriors, with a ragged line of slaves struggling behind, north of Ishtar’s position.

Zuri faced Teal. “They’re on an intercept course.”

Sterling leaned forward scowling. “Who’s that coming up behind Chai?”

Teal slapped his forehead. “Oh, the fools. That’s Eoban, Barak, and Obed.”

Ark frowned, his lips pursed into flabby tubes. “They have no idea what they’re about to run into.”

The image blurred, and Teal shouted at Zuri. “What’re you doing?”

Zuri shrugged. “I want to know what happened to the boy—Ishtar’s son.”

Ark snorted.

Zuri tilted his head, his eyes wide. “What? So I have a soft spot for children.”

The image refocused on Amin. Sweat poured down his thin face as he struggled through a thick forest, brushing thorns and vines out of his path.

Sienna blinked and shook her head. “Poor thing.”

Kelesta squinted at the scene. “There’s something following him.”

Ark, turning green, glanced away. “I can’t watch.”

Sterling snarled at Ark. “You’re a Cresta scientist—you dissect specimens all the time.”

“After they’ve died!” Ark swiveled about, his tentacles flying in all directions. “Get it through your Luxonian filters—Crestas have to study everything. It’s what we do. How we survive. But that hardly makes us cold-hearted.”

Teal tapped his fingers together. “Can we debate this another time?” He turned to Zuri. “Want to split up?”

Kelesta’s eyes widened as she wiggled next to the Ingot.

Zuri peered down at her hope-filled eyes and rubbed his beardless chin. “Fine. We’ll follow Amin.”

Teal swiveled toward Ark. “Take Sterling and keep an eye on Ishtar.”

Ark grinned, his golden eyes gleaming. “It’ll be my pleasure!”

Sterling raised his hand. “When—exactly—did I get demoted?”

Scowling, Teal turned away. “You’re doing what Ungle asked—keeping an eye on Ishtar. There’s no other place for you to be.”

Sienna sauntered over to Teal and wrapped her arm around his. “And we’ll follow the three fools?”

Teal shook his head. “They barely escaped the temple demon, and now they’re bumbling right into Chai.” He exhaled. “I can only pity them.”

Ark stood back and appraised the gathering. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from humans…”

All eyes fixed on the Crestonian.

Ark grinned. “Nothing ever goes as planned.”

Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.~ PRISON CHAPLAIN, A Clockwork Orange

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Seven

—Lux—

Boiling Lava Rocks

Sienna studied a large hologram rotating before her. Rainbow-colored disks spread across the universe. She tapped the console and squinted. One sector magnified a thousand percent, rolling closer like a storm. She bit her lip and tapped the magnify button again and again. Beyond the Divide! Where are you?

A chime rang.

Sienna frowned and turned. “Come in, Kelesta.”

The door slid open and the Bhuaci clerk ambled in, a smile wreathing her petite face. “Any success?”

Sienna shook her head. “They’re gone…as if they never existed.”

Her lips puckering in a childish pout, Kelesta stopped at Sienna’s side. “They’re just hiding.” She waved a languid hand. “They can’t hide forever. At some point, their curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll expose themselves to us…or to someone.”

A doubt shivered through Sienna. Her gaze slid over to her friend. “Have they shown themselves to you recently?”

Her body stiffening, Kelesta frowned. “Not really. The one who contacted me originally pretended to be human…an old man. I knew, of course.”

“And why did he contact you?”

“He said he needed help.”

Sienna waited.

“He knew we needed help.”

Pacing away, Sienna crossed her arms. “An exchange of assistance?”

“We would be each other’s ears and eyes.”

Sienna turned, her anger building. “And were you?”

Kelesta sighed. “I told Sterling—I told you all—the truth. I thought they were going to protect us…that was the arrangement.”

“So you haven’t had any contact with them—lately?”

Kelesta crossed her arms, her body enlarged and hardened, and a menacing scowl rolling over her face. “No! And I’m not looking to contact them.” She reverted to her former petite shape. Sidestepping Sienna, she wandered around the revolving hologram. “There’s only one way to keep an eye on such a powerful enemy.”

Sienna’s eyes followed the Bhuaci. She titled her head. “How?”

“Let them keep an eye on us.” She arrived at Sienna’s left and tapped the console. The universe dissolved and reappeared with Earth in the center. “Let’s return and discover what it is about humans that fascinates Ungle and the Ingilium so much.”

“Crestas are obsessed with science, and Ingots only care about trade.”

“More than that…” Kelesta grinned and cast a side- glance at Sienna. “Besides, I’d like to understand Zuri better.” She licked her lips. “He’s unlike any Ingot I’ve ever met.”

A hot flush worked up Sienna’s cheeks. “You’re interested in Zuri?”

Kelesta straightened her tunic and tugged at the collar. “Professionally. Certainly. The more I understand our enemies…the safer the Bhuaci will be.”

With a shrug, Sienna turned toward the door. “Teal seems to trust him.” She stopped. “But Teal wants me to bring information about the mystery race—”

Kelesta nudged her forward. “And you will. Once we get back to Earth and discover what all the fuss is about.”

—OldEarth—

Teal, dressed in a patched, sleeveless shirt and gray leggings, stood on the brow of the hill and glanced back at Ark and Zuri. “You two, stay here. I’m going in.”

Ark blinked as sweat dripped down the side of his face. “Is that wise?”

Zuri scratched his short blond hair. “You look human enough, but up close…someone might notice differences.”

“No one ever has before.” Teal peered around. “Where’s Sterling?”

Ark glanced at Zuri.

Zuri shuffled his feet. “He’s with Ungle.” He pointed to a rocky outcropping. “But I don’t think Ungle—”

Glowing at the edges, Teal frowned. “I’m tired of tiptoeing around that Cresta’s sensibilities.”

His eyes alarmingly wide, Ark waved a tentacle. “You may not want to get irritated in front of humans…you’re glowing—”

In an instant, Teal returned to his human state—sans the bright outline. He stomped to the enormous boulders.

Sterling sat on a jagged ledge, his hands clasped like a contrite child.

Ungle paced before him, waving his tentacles. “Lux cannot afford to indulge—”

Teal clambered the rest of the way up the incline and glared at Ungle.

Ungle stared back. “This was a private discussion.”

Pointing to the stone city below, Teal shrugged. “I don’t think they care.”

His jaw rotating and bubbles rising, Ungle hissed through his breather helm. “Bothmal was created for such—”

Teal threw up his hands. “Please. No threats. No lectures.” He turned and faced Sterling with his hands perched on his hips. “If we’re going to learn anything useful, we’d better get down there—now.”

Sterling blinked like a mystified child. “We?”

Rubbing his neck, Teal kept his eyes fixed on Sterling, dearly wishing he could knock him backward with the force of his gaze. “It’ll be a lot easier to pass myself off as a merchant if I have a slave to sell.”

Jerking to his feet, Sterling choked. “A slave!” His whole body shimmered. “I never!”

Rejecting Sterling’s idiocy, Teal stomped over to Ungle and leaned in close to Ungle’s watery orbs. “Do you—or do you not—want to learn about Chai?”

A grin slid over Ungle’s face. Wrapping a tentacle around Sterling’s shoulder, he led him to the brow of the hill overlooking the city. “If there’s a Luxonian alive that can take us beyond murky waters into clear pools, I believe it’s you, Sterling.”

Sterling’s shoulders slumped. With a long shuddering sigh, he shrunk and shriveled, losing stature and weight. His clothes dissolved into mere rags and his gorgeous locks of hair turned stringy-brown, matted with dirt and lice.”

Ungle stepped back hastily, flipping his tentacles out of reach.

Teal frowned. “Don’t overdo it. Lose the lice. I want to sell you not drown you.”

Grinning, Ungle waddled down the hill and turned toward Zuri and Ark at the bottom. He waved a tentacle in salute. “I’m returning home, so you’ll be on your own.” He glanced at Sterling. “I want details, Sterling. Colorful details!” He passed Zuri, who stood frowning and merely patted Ark on the shoulder.

Ark called. “Leaving so soon?”

Ungle chuckled as he headed to the hills. “Mission accomplished!”

Teal nudged Sterling toward the city. “Ours has just begun.”

~~~

Zuri scanned through his datapad, scowling in the bright afternoon light.

Ark flopped down and poured a green liquid into his breather Helm. “By the Divide, I hate waiting.” He glanced over to Zuri. “What’s wrong?” He nudged Zuri. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Sienna’s gone. Ungle’s gone. Granted, we still have to deal with Sterling, but he’ll leave as soon as this temple business is taken care of.”

Zuri’s gaze stayed fixed on the datapad. He rubbed his hand over his short hair. “Oh, blast!”

Ark frowned. “Naughty girlfriend?”

Zuri glanced over. “She liked the picture I sent.” He wiggled his eyebrows and pointed to his head.

Ark licked his lips. “That’s good, right?”

Zuri sighed. “Now she wants to see my hands.”

Tentacles flying to his face, Ark looked every millimeter the blushing, scandalized matron of every-world. “What next I wonder? Your…do we dare think it?” His voice lowered as he leaned in, his gaze dropping to Zuri’s mechanical boots.

Zuri dropped the datapad aside. “This could go places I’m not really prepared—”

A shuffling noise stiffened them both into statuesque poses and complete silence.

A goat trotted forward, sniffed, and bolted back the way it had come.

Ark thrust a tentacle over his chest. “That was too close.”

Crouching, Zuri scrambled to the outcropping and peered over the edge. In the distance, three children and a flock of goats ambled in their direction. “Boiling lava rocks!”

Ark edged closer. “Please, no ugly images.” He peered over the edge. “They’re between us and the cave.”

“Bet they bring those quadrupeds up here for the season and use that cave for…” His eyes widening, Zuri scrambled for his datapad.

Ark peered at him. “What’re you—?”

“Creating a diversion.”

An explosion blasted from inside the cave.

Screaming, the children darted down the hill with the goats close at their heels.

Crouching over, Zuri skedaddled for the cave entrance.

Ark lumbered behind, huffing, his gaze searching the perimeter. When he stopped next to Zuri just inside the cave, he patted his chest as if to keep his organs safely inside. “I’m a scientist…not an explorer. I tried to tell them.” He glanced at Zuri. “Teal would never’ve made that mistake. We were just sitting out there for all the world— ”

Zuri clambered to his ship, pressed the datapad, and waited while the hatch fell open. “I’ve been distracted.” He climbed the ramp and huffed. “What’s your excuse?”

Ark padded behind. “Touchy, aren’t we? Just because your girlfriend wants to see you au natural—it isn’t any reason to—”

On the main deck, Zuri turned and faced Ark. “I can handle that. One article of bio-ware at a time.” He shifted into the helm’s seat.

“What then?”

“Sienna’s coming back…and she’s bringing her Bhuaci friend.”

“Boiling lava rocks!”

“Like I said.”

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~Aristotle

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Two

—OldEarth—

We Still Have Free Will

Zuri hated emotional chaos. He clumped to the base of the cave and plunked down on a rock. Propping his head on one hand, he stared at the creek rippling by.

A squirrel hippity-hopped along the water’s edge, then scrambled in the dirt, discovered a half-buried nut, and leaped forward. It dug furiously. A darker squirrel scampered from behind, chuckled, and sent the first squirrel, humpbacked, straight into the air.

Zuri laughed. “So, little quadrupeds, who’s stealing from whom?”

Ark meandered forward, rubbed his bulbous eyes in the bright light, and harrumphed. “Not me. Certainly.”

Zuri peered over his shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “You’d think we were all planning to kill each other the way Sienna acts.” He rubbed his neck. “I wish Sterling would send her back to Lux.”

“He would, if Teal would let him. Ungle would love to end her searing glares.”

“She’s only mad because he shot at her.”

“Yeah, but she never actually got shot—whereas Ungle—” Zuri dropped his gaze and sighed.

“You didn’t know.” Ark wrapped his tentacles across his lap. “Ungle justified his actions under the Crestonian rule of law—extreme measures are acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge.” He shrugged. “Hardly Sienna’s chosen creed.”

Zuri shifted and clasped his hands. “Are females on Crestar as…you know—?”

“Emotional?”

“I was going to say unpredictable. On Ingle, our girls are raised so much like the boys, that we’re almost interchangeable. They’re as strong as we are and have all the same technological advantages. There was a time when our race almost did away with sex types altogether.”

Ark’s eyes rounded. “You don’t say? I never read that.”

“It’s not one of our happier chapters. We almost killed each other.”

“Ah.”

He prodded Ark. “Like when Crestar did all that cloning—”

“Miserable affair.” Ark lifted a tentacle as if reciting a pledge. “Mutations are our salvation.” He chuckled. “How could we have been so naive?”

Zuri wiped his face and slipped off his helmet.

Ark nearly fell backward. “Oh, seamuck! I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you were losing your head.”

Zuri ran his fingers over the blond fuzz crowing his cranium. “I’m trying to grow hair.” He looked around. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“Why? For darkness’ sake, your race advanced beyond body hair ages ago.”

His gaze darting to the cave entrance, Zuri practically tiptoed to Ark’s side. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “There’s this Ingot woman—”

Ark frowned. “I thought you said there’s little discernible difference?”

“I said interchangeable—in respect to our professional life.” He sucked in a deep breath. “When it comes to our personal life…there’s a big difference. Trust me.”

Ark nudged him playfully, his smooth eyebrows waggling. “You like her?”

Zuri sunk onto the boulder next to Ark. “Passionately. She’s intelligent and funny…and very unpredictable.”

Ark leaned in, his gaze watery. “And beautiful?”

Zuri shrugged. “I don’t think about that. We’re all assembled parts…natural and otherwise.” Heat rose to his face. “The only thing that really matters is what’s inside— you know what I mean?”

Ark nodded. “I do. Unfortunately, I only experienced an attachment once…and it nearly killed me.”

“She left you?”

“Poisoned me.” Ark shook his head. “I gave up such associations after that.”

A shuffling near the cave entrance sent Zuri scuttling back to the other side of the cave, frantically tugging on his helmet.

Ark turned, his tentacles crossed just so.

Sterling staggered forward, bumbled to the creek fully clothed, and waded in.

Zuri straightened, his mouth dropping open. He started forward.

Ark reached out and held him back. “Let him be. Water is very soothing to a troubled soul.” He glanced at his terrestrial boots. “I should know.”

Sterling flopped down in the water, let it rush over his whole body for the space of twenty heartbeats, and then rose and straggled back to Ark and Zuri…dripping with each step. “I needed that.”

Ark waddled to the water’s edge. “I might join you, if only—” He peered back at Zuri. “You’ll help me get them back on?”

Feeling very much like an over-indulgent father, Zuri waved the Cresta to the water. “Go on. Get wet. I know you’ve been dying to.”

Ark beamed as he tugged off his boots and tossed them aside. He waddled forward and plunged in.

Sterling stood, still dripping, next to Zuri, and watched Ark splash around like a dolphin. “He’s really a child under all that blubber.”

Zuri glanced aside. “And you?” He leaned against the cave wall. “What’re you?”

Sterling raised a finger. “Just a moment. I can’t stand another drip. He shimmered and disappeared. Then he reappeared in exactly the same clothes, now perfectly dry. “Much better.”

Zuri flung his hand into the air. “So why the dramatic dunk—?”

“You need to look beyond the surface, Ingot.” Sterling started for the woods, glanced backward, and beckoned Zuri with a curt wave.

Zuri followed, uneasiness bubbling like a lava flow in his middle.

“I want to speak to you alone.” Sterling jutted his jaw toward Ark. “I knew the sight of dripping water would break his resolve.”

Tempted to take off his helmet again, if for no other reason than to unbalance Sterling’s perfect demeanor, Zuri scratched his exposed neck. “What do you want?”

Sterling frowned like a misunderstood child. “It’s not always a matter of want. Sometimes it’s a need. I need you to make Sienna leave—today.”

Crossing his arms, Zuri straightened. “I want her to leave as much as anyone, but she won’t listen to me. She thinks she’s protecting Teal—”

“She’s more likely to get Teal killed.”

Zuri tilted his head and waited. His scalp itched like crazy.

“Ungle is not one to be beaten at his own game. He’s deadly serious about studying the interaction between Ishtar and that bloody Chai. He’s practically leaking fluids to see them meet the first time.”

Zuri rolled his eyes. “I can’t stand it!” He swiped his helmet off.

Sterling’s gaze snapped to Zuri’s head, and he staggered. “By the Div—?”

Zuri gripped him by the arm. “I’m growing hair to impress an Ingot female who thinks that we should return to a more natural state.”

Sterling squared his shoulders and tugged his arm free. “Thank you for sharing that with me.” He ran his fingers through his own luxurious white locks. “Back to reality, shall we?”

Zuri tucked his helmet under his arm and twirled his hand in the air. “Go on.”

“The point is—I want Teal to see Chai and Ishtar up close and personal when the meeting takes place. And I don’t want him distracted. That’s why I went along with Ungle’s suggestion in the first place. But now—”

Walking backward, Ungle plodded into view slightly off-balance with his one shortened tentacle. His gaze fixed on Ark plunging in the creek like a salmon trying to swim upstream. He turned, ran into Sterling, and frowned. “Oh, there you are.”

Sterling gestured to Zuri. “Here we are.”

Ungle heaved a disgusted breath. “Yes, of course.” He peered at Sterling. “I’ve told them both—there’s no other option. Either she goes or I’ll—”

Zuri snorted. “I thought you were worried about that mystery race, the ones who wiped out a third of your planet.”

Ungle’s face tightened. “Who wouldn’t be?”

“Since Sienna supposedly worked for someone who worked for them…maybe you should send her—”

“She says that she was used by the Bhuaci, and she won’t make that mistake again.”

“Tell her that she’s going to get her revenge. She’ll use them this time.”

Ungle’s gaze slipped from Zuri to Sterling and back to Zuri. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected such duplicity from you. I thought all Ingots were bred to obey.”

“We may have been bred…so to speak. But we still have free will.”

“Do you? News to me.”

Zuri stomped forward, fury flushing to the roots of his fuzzy, blond hair.

Sterling swept between them, his arms outspread. “Oh, no, you don’t! I’ve got enough on my mind with Teal besotted by that—”

Teal sauntered around the corner, his gaze fixed on Sterling. “Besotted is a strong word…don’t you think?” He glanced at Zuri and frowned. “What happened to your—?”

Ungle waved a tentacle. “We’re wasting valuable time. Ishtar could be anywhere by now.”

Zuri scowled and pulled a datapad from his sleeve. “He’s still at the same location.” He held the pad up, facing the others. “I’ve been monitoring him.”

Sterling glared at Teal. “That’s your job.”

Teal folded his arms. “I know exactly where Ishtar is. And I know where Barak, Obed, and Eoban are too.”

Ungle swept a tentacle in the air dismissively. “Who cares about them?”

Teal stepped forward. “I think you would—if you really want to understand Chai.” He glanced around. “They’re heading directly for the stone city—Chai’s hometown.”

Sterling pursed his lips, his gaze flickering to the cave. “And Sienna?”

Teal turned and started back toward the creek. He called to the water-happy Cresta. “Ark! Time to go!” Glancing back he met Ungle’s intense stare. “I sent her back to Lux. She’s going to do research.”

Sterling closed his eyes and sighed in obvious relief.

Ungle nodded, a glint of pleasure sparkling in his bulbous eyes.

Zuri frowned. “Research—what?”

Teal jogged forward and helped Ark stagger out of the water. He called back. “The origin of our mystery race.”

Zuri dropped his head to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut.

“What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”
~Madeleine Albright

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Ten

 

—Planet Lux—

Legitimate Concerns

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it beyond Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you describe in your reports?”

Shoving loose soil aside, Sterling nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Sterling glanced at Teal.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips. Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console. Hard.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists.

“Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” Sterling eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched a blue-green oval fruit from a bowl on an end table and chomped. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressuring everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around Zuri too much. I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You’re glaring like he does.”

Teal finished chewing and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip. A chime sounded.

Teal and Sterling turned to the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.

“Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything…worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall, square glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled in. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass, his brows rising, a smile quivering on his thick lips. “Having liquids, are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. And taking copious notes, I hope.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few ore samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted two full glasses and strolled across the porcelain tile flooring to Ark. “Here, you can have these since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured himself a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out. You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there” —he nodded toward a vessel on the counter— “that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “They do have feet—don’t they?”

Ark poured both drinks into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal who placed the water glass in the sink, pointedly ignoring the swill.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed back his drink in one swallow. He closed his eyes. Picture the sea. Calm waves rolling on the shore. He held the moment and then, opening his eyes, he peered ahead. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned. When he faced Sterling, his smile vanished. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and marched directly to the cabinet. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He turned around swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded on Teal. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed the back of his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window and sighed. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “I left him alone on the planet!” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discreet distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter, his composure cracking. His imaginary rolling waves rose to pounding surf. “Do you mean to tell me that you have Sienna watching Zuri who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want the three of us to return to Earth, undetected, and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark tapped Teal on the shoulder and imitated his whisper. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. His body actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot’s afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his empty pot, yanked it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit, and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and wrapped all four tentacles around his thick waist. “How did you know we’re focusing on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile— He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground.

If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” After pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down on the sofa and stretched out. “Mind if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the arm of a chair opposite his superior.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He stared at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark waved the question away. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Rubbing his brow, Sterling realized that he felt completely drained. Maybe I’m not suited to this line of work. “Can’t I just say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark snorted.

With a grim expression, Teal slipped onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

As if ready for his analyst session, Sterling lay back, crossed his feet, and placed his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb in this position. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth.”

Bright sunlight filtered through the window and the purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. A spicy scent wafted through the air.

Teal’s voice seemed to echo across a vast distance. “From Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers together and relaxed, seeping like a puddle into the ground. “Yes. This mystery race has surprising abilities. They engineer new life forms, terraform entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While we Luxonians and our sometime-allies have our own unique abilities, these beings can do everything we can— but better—with more flare.”

Ark harrumphed.

“Truth is…they’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbowroom. We’ve only discovered a few pockets of their kind. The ones your people irritated” —he swiveled a glance at Ark— “must’ve been rather high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep Earth in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark speared Teal with a frown and nodded to Sterling. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn everything they do…and more. Apparently, your studies caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet and paced across the room. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Evil like Ishtar?”

Freezing, Teal glared at Ark. “Ishtar isn’t evil. He’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb? You called him evil.”

“I can’t debate that now. I want to know why Ungle wants to kill me. Or Zuri. We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed, swung his legs off the couch, and sat up. “He isn’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they really are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants your work to continue—” His pink cheeks blanched as he sat bolt upright. “Uh-oh.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark’s shoulder.

“What?”

“Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted by anything…or anyone.”

“Zuri is annoying, but he’s not a distraction. He’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. His throat felt very dry. “Not Zuri. Sienna. He wants her to leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So, she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and that wasn’t a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner by the way—it was hers.”

Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.

Ark sprang forward. Slapping Teal’s hands off Sterling’s neck with three tentacles, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Glaring, Teal jerked away and spat his words. “How could you? Sienna is completely innocent. I thought we trusted each other.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark shoved them further away from each other and glanced from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand. Ungle has a very persuasive nature. He can make a person’s life remarkably challenging. He’s quite capable of creating an interstellar incident and making it appear that a certain judge” —his eyebrows wigged in Sterling’s direction— “is long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that Ungle wouldn’t be far behind.”

Ark laughed. “Perhaps. But our Crestonian leadership has legitimate concerns. This mystery race will dictate the Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened as his voice rose. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put your planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really will have a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Not possible. Though, I rather wish…”

Sterling peered at Teal. “All right! I should’ve told you. Ungle’s talk of good and evil…a life of heaven or hell. I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to Earth now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in various directions, clearly facing an impossible reality. “How will I ever keep you all in line?”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed, he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

With a long huff, bubbles swarmed through Ark’s breather helm.

Sterling stood and pressed Teal’s shoulder, meeting his gaze. “Sienna is safe. Really.” His eyes wandered to the purple vine; it appeared to be waving goodbye.

Oh hell.“

~~~

Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” – Santosh Kalwar

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Legitimate Concerns

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it past Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you described in your reports?”

He shoved loose soil aside and nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a sterile surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips.

Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists. “Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” He eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched and an oval blue-green piece of fruit from a bowl on the coffee table and chomped a big bite. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressure everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around him too much. “I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You glare like he does.”

Teal chewed and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up behind and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip.

A chime sounded. Teal and Sterling turned to face the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged. “Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything. Worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass. “Having liquids are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched over to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. Taking copious notes.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted the full glasses and strolled across to Ark. “Here. You can have two since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out.” He nodded to the counter. “You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “Or do they have claws?”

Ark poured the drink into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed his entire drink down his throat in one swallow. Stay calm. Right. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned and turned abruptly. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and headed for the cabinet again. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He stopped and turned, swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “And I left him alone on the planet.” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discrete distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter. “Of all the—” He felt his composure cracking. “Do you mean to tell me that you have someone watching Zuri, who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and waved Sterling and Ark closer. “I want to return to Earth undetected and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark shook his head and tapped Teal on the shoulder. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. In surprise, he realized that his fingers actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot is afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his pot, pulled it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands, free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and perched all four tentacles onto his thick waist. “How’d you know we’re focusing our attention on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile made up of the same—Uh oh. He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground. If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” Pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down and stretched out. “Mine if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the edge of a chair.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He glanced at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal tented his fingers before his face. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark wiggled a tentacle in the air. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Sterling rubbed his brow, he felt drained. “Can’t I just lie and say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark and Teal glanced at each other and shook their heads.

Teal slipped back onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

Sterling lay stretched out as if ready for his analyst session, crossed his feet, and placing his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb like this. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth—you know what I mean.”

Teal glanced at the bright sunlight filtering through the window. The purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. “That from Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers steeple style. “Yes. They’re a super race. They can create new life forms, terra-form entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While Luxonians, Crestas, Uanyi, Bhuaci, and Ingots each have our own unique abilities, this race can do all we do, but better…with more flare. They’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbow room, so to speak. We’ve only discovered a few of their kind. The ones the Crestas irritated must have been a bit high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep entire worlds in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark frowned at Teal. He tapped Sterling on the shoulder. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn as much as they do…and more. Apparently, your studies on Earth caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Perhaps evil like Ishtar?”

Teal stomped across the room. “Ishtar isn’t evil…he’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb. You called him evil.”

Teal stopped. “But why kill me? Or Zuri? We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed and swung his feet off the couch. “They aren’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants you to continue your work so that—” Ark’s pink cheeks blanched. “Oh, no.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark by a tentacle. “What?”

Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted…by anything…or anyone.”

Teal shrugged. “Zuri is annoying, but not really a distraction. Usually, he’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. “Not Zuri. Sienna. That gorgeous Luxonian. He wanted me to make her leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and I don’t believe that was a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s a Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner—it was hers by the way.”

Teal sprang at Sterling and wrapped his fingers around his neck.

Ark’s tentacles peeled Teal’s fingers away. Slapping Teal’s hands away with one tentacle, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “How could you? Sienna is innocent. I’m a Luxonian guardian, and I thought we—” He spat his words. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark waddled between them, shoving them further away from each other. He turned from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand Ungle’s persuasive nature. He can make life on Lux much more challenging—if he wants. He can create an interstellar incident and make it look like Sterling’s long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that he knows quite enough about evil already.”

Ark laughed. “Very observant. But Ungle has legitimate concerns. The mystery race will dictate the entire Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put the entire planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really am having a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head. “Not possible. In your case, I wish it was, though.”

Sterling peered at Teal. “You’re right. I should’ve told you. I was wrong. But Ungle…all his talk of good and evil…I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna into leaving seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to that stupid planet now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in all directions. “I don’t know if I have enough to keep everyone in line.”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment. I’m not feeling well.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed—he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

Ark slapped Sterling on the side of the head.

Sterling stood and placed his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “I know you have feelings for her. I’d spontaneously combust if it’d make you feel better.” His gaze wandered to his vine.

It appeared to wave its purple fronds at him.

Oh hell.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

By Nature Fleeting

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter…

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. The hot sun beat down on them. He held himself above her, propped on his arms, his knees dug into the grass, the length of her body below him.

Sienna waited. A grin hovered on her lips.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over her face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and rolled to the side sprawled flat like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Climbing to his feet, he slapped dry stems from his grey tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his hand over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced himself to stop. He lifted his gaze to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna’s gaze followed his. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren land. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “Who?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are there none-the-less.”

With a snort, Sienna tossed the rock to the side. “You’re a regular Bhuaci with all your riddles.”

 I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through Teal’s chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest.

Teal peered down, clasped one of her hands, and examined it. “Never any jewelry. Why?”

With a smug grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his gaze with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

 Ark sat on a log next to a stream and slapped his three-toed feet into the flowing water. He shivered in delight.

Zuri crouched on a boulder and hunched over a handheld screen. His gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and slapped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode over to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00